Time to wake up and smell the coffee chaps…


While rummaging through my email inbox this morning I stopped and read the one from the professional institute of which I am a member.

It’s compelling, and beautifully written, as it ought to be and it was asking me very nicely to attend the annual conference.  And offering me a discount.  What’s not to like about that?

What caught my eye though was that the early booking discount was £200 + vat.  If that’s the discount I thought, how much is the conference?  A mighty £445 + vat no less.  Which means that if I don’t book before the early bird discount runs out I’ll have to fork at a eye-watering £645 + vat to attend a conference run by the association I pay to be a member of.  Wow.

Possibly not for the right reasons, the organisation now had my full attention.  Surely this must be a two day event I thought… but no, this was for a one day 09:00 to 17:30 affair (with an hour and forty minutes of break time; you’ll be relieved to hear that lunch was provided) where I could attend ten sessions (if I had the fortitude to get through it all) of which there were some of only marginal interest.

The marketing line what smaller companies can learn from the “big boys” illicited a wry chortle. Because at that price how many small businesses are actually likely to attend.  The HMRC definition of a small company is if your turnover is £5.6million or less or have fewer than 50 employees.  In reality many small, and very dynamic, businesses fall well below these thresholds.  In the Marketing Week/Ball & Hoolahan marketing salary survey for 2012 the salary for a marketing manager is somewhere in the region of £36,000.  If you extrapolate down from this you can work out that this conference organiser is potentially asking a company to pay a quarter of an employee’s monthly take home pay to attend a one day conference from which there is marginal company-wide return on investment.

You don’t need to absorb much media in the UK to work out that these are straitened economic times.  There is many a managing director trying to work out whether they should pay the wage bill or the suppliers, and telling their employees that “we’re very sorry but there will be no wage increases this year”.  Training budgets may survive, just, but spending on expensive conference days out (we haven’t factored in travel and accommodation/lost productivity costs in all of this have we?) isn’t a priority for many.  And what about those who have embraced redundancy and become freelance marketers… if you take the cost of the conference and the loss of a day’s earnings why on earth would you even consider booking a place.

And conference organisers wonder why their attendance rates are down… Discriminating against large sectors of the audience by virtue of price isn’t going to help much is it? And membership organisations are more at risk than ever because we’re not even sure we need you any more guys.

It is in times like these that great innovation often occurs. Exhibition and live event organisers have recognised for years the need to add more and more value to their offerings, creating environments where visitors can get information or experiences that they just can’t get elsewhere.  It’s time that conference organisers did the same. There is no point telling a potential attendee that they will learn new things and network with their peers, because they can do this via LinkedIn without spending a bean or having to get up at 6:15am to get to the venue, and a day full of plenary sessions with tiny comfort breaks (because the programme is crammed to make it look like it is value for money) doesn’t deliver for many people.

So dear conference organisers I challenge you to do three things differently this year:

  1. Start your pricing strategy from how much you think your conference is worth and how much your delegate is willing to pay rather than from how much money you need to cover your venue costs.  If the answer is £99+vat then find a solution that fits.
  2. Stop trying to cram too much into a programme to justify the huge sum of money you are asking for.  Remember how exhausting it was to sit in a lecture theatre for a couple of hours as a student and ask yourself why you think people can endure it for eight hours or more now that they are older.
  3. Embrace some new technology to deliver to your audiences and members in a different, more inclusive and accessible way.  Get out of that traditionalist box right now.

At present most conference organisers (associations included) attract on average less than 5% of their target audiences to their events.  Which means that for every delegate you get there could be another 19 waiting to engage with your organisation. Time to go get them.

hellen @missioncontrol

Posted on March 21, 2012, in Association, Changing business thinking, Conferences, Event Marketing, Events, LinkedIn, Marketing, Virtual technologies and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Hellen,

    Great Blog. I love the focus on value. How difficult is it to get close to £700 value from attending any one day event? Which event is it? That way I can have a look and see what they are offering for that value?

    I wonder for example if they are:

    1. providing free speaker training for speakers to ensure they are not just able to deliver content but also content that will be useful and remembered?
    2. supporting engagement with speakers and delegates to ensure they have a conversations on content before they blindly present?
    3. curating that audience to make sure the right people are invited and attend on the day, or are they just hoping to see the tickets to anyone (who can afford it)?
    4. structuring attendees networking pre and post and more importantly during the event? or leaving this valuable part of a conference to chance?
    5. ensuring that engagement with the event is over a longer period of time to ensure attendees see maximum value?
    6. creating a memorable experience or just a normal event?

    This is by no means an exhaustive list of what an association like the one you mention should be doing, not just to justify a high price, but any price.

  2. Spot on as it relates to many conferences. William makes some solid suggestions. If this same event were made available online to those +/- 85% of target who just cannot make it, and do so at a different/lower price point, then the pressure on the physical event registration revenue is alleviated. A lower price point would quite possibly result, courtesy of the online revenue, yielding more physical event attendees.

    I know there is still remnant concern about online cannibalizing the face to face attendance. If a great experience is crafted to justify the onsite fee, then there should be no concern. If the experience is not valuable – then with or without an online extension, the conference is heading in the wrong direction.

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